Japan 2010: 4 - Where I Eat Very Fresh Caviar

I woke at about 6am, just beating my little travel alarm which I triumphantly silenced just as the first beep started. The day was getting going outside, and the bright sunlight had managed to peep through the narrow gap in the curtains and stare me right in the face. I got up and opened the window, naively expecting this to let in a bit of cool, fresh air. No, it was like opening an oven door; a blast of hot Okinawan air assaulted my senses. This was 6am.

After a not entirely successful shower, I headed out in the direction of the monorail, getting as many cold drinks from the nearby machine as my backpack would allow. It was another beautiful, clear day in Okinawa, and I was going to see some fishies.

Using the previous day's dry run I alighted at Asahibashi station and went straight to stand 14 where I waited patiently for the 7.42 bus. The route would require one bus to take me to Nago bus terminal, and then a second one to go from the terminal to the aquarium entrance, a total trip of about 3 hours and 3000 yen. A couple of teenage girls came by looking lost, and using hand gestures I reassured them it was this stand for the aquarium, although my doubts were creeping in that I'd got it right.

A little later, our group had swelled to a dozen or so, including James, a young man from Northern Ireland, and his partner Nokya. They were on holiday from Tokyo and had heard about the aquarium, and were as eager to see it as me, They told me that it's not just the aquarium that's there, but a whole park complex with beaches, botanical gardens and dolphins too. News of this got me even more excited, although now I wondered if a single day was going to be enough to cover it all. James knew Japanese very well, and so was able to previously swot up on what was on offer and how to get there, so I felt fortunate that I managed to get the same bus. When I asked about the service for the return leg I got another shock; they stop running criminally early - the last one leaving Nago terminal at 6pm, so the aquarium trip would have to finish at about 5pm at the latest. I lamented not getting going an hour or so previous.

When it arrived, the cool, air conditioned interior welcomed us in from the heat. The bus slowly made its way through to the outskirts of Naha, the need to reach Nago as soon as possible ever present in my mind and making my patience at the never-ending stop lights wear very thin. It followed the general route of the monorail until that ran out of track, and then shortly after joined the main Okinawa Expressway which connected the two main cities, Naha in the south and Nago in the north. Hopes of getting there in double quick time picked up as the bus gathered speed, but faded again when it slowed down to come off the interstate at just about every junction, stopping at cute little bus stops, usually with no-one getting off or on.

We got to Nago approaching 10am. James came to the rescue once more; he was able to parlez with the driver prior to stopping and work out which was the next bus.
Number 66 was at the end of the terminal and about to go so our little disconnected group all got off, individually realised the common purpose, and followed each other in a semi-confident clutter to the next bus. This journey was round twisty twiny roads through small villages and towns, and didn't look at all like a route to a major attraction. It struck me just how many people could visit this place given the transport options and the little, infrequent buses. Towards the end of the ride, the view opened out to include the western edge of the island, an attractive little port town, before we headed inland and up the hill to the aquarium.

The bus finally arrived right outside the aquarium entrance. We picked up a leaflet attached to the pole, which told us when the buses left for the terminal. Entering the aquarium together, we headed straight to the information booth to get maps and ask about the bus times back. Nokya had an excited look on her face and waved before rushing off with James at her side, both of them disappearing into the complex. I looked at my watch; it was about 11am.
The various attractions in the Ocean Expo Park all had their own tickets, and since time was a factor I decided to get to the aquarium first; partly due to priority but also it was quiet; the famous Youtube scene probably wouldn't look like that when it's absolutely heaving, and things seemed relatively quiet. After a quick scan of what would be the first of many souvenir shops, I walked past the giant whale shark statue and through the covered walkway to the entrance. 1400 yen later (cards accepted) and I was in.

The first sections were a gentle introduction to the sea life, a bit where you could tickle starfish a few inches under the surface was getting some understandable attention. I passed panoramic coral reefs, huge deep-sea fish, giant but rather shy lobsters, little tiny snake-like fish that popped out of the ground to feed and stayed there like whisps of grass, and turtles swimming about amongst massive schools seemingly content with their surroundings (which was the first time I'd seen contented turtles in captivity). As I went further in, the lighting dropped and the tanks themselves became the main source of light, becoming larger and grander as we went on. They had just about every marine animal going, and they looked generally well kept, although some were in very small aquariums with little more in them than the animals themselves.
Rounding a corner after about a half hour of gazing into the eyes of various organisms, the main tank appeared. A fluorescent blue light which lit up the dimness of the room, it was something else to see. Descending a shallow ramp, you arrive at a few rows of seats on a raised platform to the left, pointing at the window on the massive tank opposite. This is where the video was taken. Since it was all but abandoned, I spent a little time trying out various seats to see if I couldn't get to the spot where the author sat that day, hypnotised by the sight. To the other side of the walkway, a zigzag ramp descends to a lower floor, allowing you to go right up to the foot-thick glass and go as close as you can to the enormous animals gliding by. The sweet tones of Barcelona were replaced by the increasingly loud squeals of children and their chattering parents, but it was no less magical an experience.
After some time alternating my position between the seats and the tank, I took a break from the increasingly noticeable hordes and sat down at the café Ocean Blue. Bizarrely, I was served some spaghetti bolognaise, and I sat at my little table gazing timelessly into the blue void opposite. It was incredibly relaxing to see massive shoals of fish, giant Manta Rays, and of course the Whale Sharks, effortlessly doing their circuits, wisely ignoring the constant flashes of people who didn't understand the pointlessness of taking a flash photo at a wall of glass. Gazing for a while at a fully rubbered-up diver who had gone in to clean the glass from the inside (what a fantastic job to have), I realised there was a second viewing area across from the café. Rows of backless seats were positioned underneath a curved glass ceiling, looking into the same tank. From here, you could look up into the colourfully lit water above, through which the silhouettes of a thousand beautiful creatures silently swam.
What it must be like to work there; to come into that room when the aquarium is closed, and in perfect silence but for the natural rumble of thousands of tonnes of ocean water, some lucky soul can lie on their back and lose themselves in the hypnotic imagery going on above.

Eventually, and after taking a lot of photographs, I decided that it would be good to leave the aquarium and head to the other parts of the park. However, somewhat as an afterthought, the designers of the building had put a shark exhibit just past the main tank. A number of people were stood around it, peering into the murky water at the sharks with a decidedly unimpressed expression on their faces as the few sharks lumbered by, it was an anticlimax compared to what had just gone. Even with the spectacle of a (model) great white shark jaw, and the skin of a shark caught some 20 years previous, I was similarly disappointed, so to avoid that being my last emotion before leaving I went back to take a final look at the main tank. I finally said farewell to the fishies, perhaps forever, and then left for the gift shop.

The shop was heaving, but after almost permanent apologies for bumping into other people and sending them flying into piles of T-shirts, trinkets and a hundred kinds of fluffy toy sea creature, I settled on the last of the English language Churaumi Aquarium books, and a little stuffed whale shark.

Exiting round the back of the aquarium, I had forgotten just how hot it was. The pathway ushered us around a section that was being redeveloped, until we appeared back at the entrance again.
Initially wanting to head to the tropical plants on the west side I decided a quick look at the mysterious 'Emerald beach' on the east side wouldn't take long. A large building housed a pair of Manatees in a large tank which you could look at from above, or head down the steps to the level of it's bottom and see them staring out at you. A male and female, they had been donated 20 years apart, the male in the 70's and the female in the 90's from Mexico.

Just past the Manatee building was a small walkway down to 'Sea Turtle Beach'. Although there were no turtles around, the beach was beautiful and the sea air was a little bit of freshness from the wilting heat of the midday sun. Spying an overarching rock formation, I sat underneath it and rested for a while. Beautiful course cream-coloured sand, tropical plants hanging down from the outcrop above, and little hermit crabs scuttling about near me at the shore. A beautiful sight, but not the emerald beach, so after some more relaxation while I pondered the movements of a hermit crab I moved on.
The emerald beach was in contrast a very touristy affair. I headed along a road lined with strange, tropical trees and down a long, sloping road. I walked through a gap in the bushes, and I was there.
A series of sandy arcs punctuated with seating areas, volleyball nets and lifeguards on top of high chairs made it look more like a baywatch beach, but it was still very pleasant. Various western songs were playing over the loudspeakers, and it was largely devoid of people, most of which were still staring at fish. I sat down on one of the circular shaded seats and watched a couple in the bay across steer their pedalo through the water. It was a beautiful, relaxing place that I could have stayed at for a long time, but that was something I didn't have. My watch was always reminding me of the increasingly small amount of time I had remaining. I got up and headed inland, looking around a couple of beach hut-style souvinir shops. I started up the road and back to the aquarium.

Thoughts of getting to the tropical plant house were again put on hold. Just past an exhibit where giant turtles were swimming about in cramped, cylindrical tanks that you could look down into, was a large dolphin pool. According to the man outside who was pointing large crowds of people fresh from the aquarium in the direction of a stadium full of waterproof seats, the show was about to start. My camera battery was complaining by now, mainly due to the obscene amount of photos I had taken in the aquarium, and there was only a little juice left. I took my seat and watched the excited dolphins jumping about in the rear pool, waiting for the main gate to be opened so they could do their stuff. There were five trainers, and about 8 dolphins. Most were the usual bottle-nosed type (the dolphins, not the trainers), but two were False Killer Whales, with a domed head and a scary set of teeth - although they looked to be just as playful as the rest. They happily greeted the audience by rising up on their tails out of the water, batted balls with their tails high in the air, squawked and bleated in unison, and even jumped up onto the dry bit and posed for the cameras, allowing us a full look into toothy's gaping jaw.

It was only a 20 minute show which worked out good for me, but my camera had died, lasting just up until the end of the show, so there is a bit of a photo gap here. Disappointedly, I looked for a mains socket on an external wall I could sneakily plug a charger into but there were none, so I followed the signs in the hot sun to the tropical gardens. (Note there are a few official pictures here).

The gardens were about 10 minutes away, enclosed by a canopy of ivy and vines on a large wooden frame. The surrounding woodland was filled with invisible but noisy Cicadas that refused to show themselves [I was going out of my way to photograph the wildlife as I went and Cicadas were quite high on the want list]. It was now 3.30, so I would have to be quick. Scanning the literature earlier I had noticed a discount if you presented your aquarium ticket, so it only cost 500 yen. The gardens were made up of several greenhouses connected by pathways, each of them about as hot as it was outside, but with artificial humidity pumped in. The first couple of houses were the most impressive; filled with every different kind and colour Orchid I could think of and more besides, some of them in pots, but many growing on the trunks and branches of the trees that snaked their way around the enclosed spaces. In among the Orchids flew tiny birds and butterflies of all different colours, and growing in quiet corners were tropical fruit trees, like Mangoes and Starfruit.

There are two routes around the gardens, and reluctantly I took the shorter one. Emerging at the point where the longer route rejoined the shorter, I was dwarfed by a strange tower rising up into the sky. Panting from the sun and humidity exposure, I forced my tired legs back into action and headed over to it. The spiral steps to the top flowed around the outside, hidden behind a high wall. Fortunately they were very shallow meaning that you didn't notice the exertion so much going up, but that evened out as it meant twice as many to get to the top. The view at the top was a beautiful scene, looking past the greenhouses and out to sea, and you could see the way that the gardens had evolved; newer sections surrounded those that were overgrown and hidden away, one curious section was sealed off, the walls on both sides hidden by years worth of vines and bushes. It made me want to go inside and explore, but there was little time and I would probably have been detained.

Reluctantly and under constraint of time, I headed out at 4pm, the thought occurring to me that the buses that went back to Nago might well be full to the brim and I might have to wait in line as maybe two or three filled up in front of me. To my surprise the stop was deserted, but I had trailed back too far to return to anything interesting, so I settled down on the shaded seat and watched the cars go by. Sometime later, and still without a bus appearing, the two Japanese girls from Naha came to the stop. We shared a recognising smile and continued waiting. Eventually, the empty bus came by about a quarter hour late and we hopped on. The return journey back was a lesson in where not to sit in a Japanese bus when the driver is trying to make up time (i.e. not over the back wheels), and we eventually returned to the bus terminal in early dusk. Asking the driver about Naha, he pointed at stand 5, where the bus was about to depart, so another hurried scramble later we were all heading on the final leg, rather than having to wait an extra half hour for the last bus. My trip to the aquarium was over; it was criminally short but I had enjoyed it immensely. It's just a shame it's in such a remote corner of the world that so few people will get to see it.

By the time the bus pulled into the terminal in central Naha, it was 7pm and pitch black save for the neon signs and the headlights of cars. I ambled back to the Sora house and set my camera back on to charge. In the communal room, we had a new visitor: John had arrived this morning from Australia, intending to spend a month in Okinawa with his girlfriend. Problem was, she had dumped him on the day he went. To his credit, instead of drowning his sorrows and staying at home, he went for it and was determined to have a good time on his first visit to Japan. We talked and got to know each other along with Machiko and friends, and decided en masse to go down to the cosy-looking Teriyaki restaurant on the corner. I had eyed this place - only a stones throw from the Sora house - a couple of times as I had passed it and resolved to go in and get some proper Japanese tuck, but hadn't quite managed to pluck up courage. Now I was going in a group.

2000 yen each, and it was all you could eat. John's eyes widened at the sight of the huge casks and bottles of saki near our table as the six of us sat down. It was John's mission to try everything they would throw at him, immerse himself completely in the culture. I was also open to new things, but my mind was working overtime at just what that could involve and thus didn't quite match up to John's gung-ho spirit. The group talked and shared stories in between joking about how far us foreigners should go with the plates of food that were coming over. The early offerings were quite tame, the classic Teriyaki chicken, marinated in local sauce on skewers. A bit of bacon and leek, some calamari, and shiitake mushrooms bunched together and wrapped in a bacon belt, made to look like little octopus. This all went down fine. And then came the fish.

A little tiny fish on a skewer. Probably a sprat of some kind. Not so much of a problem, except that it was looking at me with it's cold, dead eyes. This wasn't just a section of fish - the fleshy bit minus the bits you normally throw away - it was the whole fish. I looked at John and he looked at me with a smile. To the expectant eyes of the rest of the group he picked up one of the fish, and ripped it off the stick with his teeth. 'Say yes to everything' he said, chewing it audibly with a little trouble and gulping it down. I looked at the pile of fish, and the group across the table. All of them stared back expectantly. I grabbed one and gingerly bit into the belly. It wasn't so bad to taste, except my tongue was telling me that the usual feeling it receives when dealing with a fillet were not being felt. I looked at what remained. Held back by a comb of tiny rib bones were a couple of hundred yellow fish eggs. Little fishy was pregnant, and I had ripped her guts out. A little heave of the lower digestive tract was enough to seal the disappointment of my new peers.

But it was all forgotten in the next moment, aside from the slightly fishy after-taste, (and John being told that you're meant to throw away the head and tail of the fish instead of gulping it right down). We talked and laughed until the small hours and then went back to the hostel and then collapsed into our respective beds. It had been a good day.

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 18

Tucked away at the end of the festival, was the anime segment. In an encouraging change, LIFF will be getting it's own 'Anime Day' filled with as many as they can fit in. This was what we got this year:

One Piece Film: Strong World (Jpn) (wiki/site)

I haven't seen any episodes from the (very) long-running anime series on which this is based, but from what I can tell, it's a highly-stylised adventure variant along the lines of Bleach and Inuyasha, but with a pirate theme. It's certainly being marketed to death all over Okinawa at the moment, that's for sure. Luffy (the main character) is made of rubber, and can cause his body to stretch or inflate at will. He has a bounty on his head, as do the rest of his clan, a mixture of human beings (presumably in this world by a portal from earth, that's usually how these things go) and strange beings, including a shape shifting doctor bear, and a panty-obsessed musical skeleton. Each have various special abilities along the lines of Bleach, and it's all played with over-the-top slapstick in the way that certain breeds of anime do.

In this film, a powerful pirate Shiki, missing for 20 years, turns up on a flying island and causes havok, taking control of the animals on it and engineering them to become massive and dangerous. The only thing he fears are the cyclones, and so when Nami, one of the crew, shows him her ability to predict them in time to get out of the way, he kidnaps her, forcing Luffy and co to the rescue.

Even though this sort of anime isn't really my realm, it was difficult not to laugh at the mad storyline and madder characters, and the casual joking around in the middle of chaos. There were even some quieter moments where there was enough investment in the characters to care about some of the problems they were going through. It's with these things it's a case of don't think, just go with it. It took a couple of minutes for the initial confusion and madness to settle down, and it would have helped if I'd known the backstories of some of the characters, but I did enjoy it and would not be against seeing a few of the series episodes. 7/10

Mardock Scramble: The First Barrage (Jpn) (site)

To contrast with the zany humour of One Piece, Mardock Scramble is a dark, adult film noir, the first of several episodes based on the novels of Tow Ubukata. Mardock City is a grim, Bladerunner/Ghost In The Shell-style metropolis; neon signs and fancy, chic restaurants in it's upper, affluent levels, and gangsters, prostitutes and criminals survive below. Rune Balot, a young prostitute is locked in a car by Shell, a wealthy and corrupted young man, sought by the authorities but always able to use his contacts to stay out of jail. When the car is blown up, Balot is saved by an ex-military scientist who treats her wounds in the hope she will testify against Shell in court, but Balot is pretty messed up, and the injustices of her wretched childhood cloud her judgement as she turns from scared and confused to angry and vengeful.

There is a lot to like about this film, and I am interested in catching the next one (not least because it ends on a hell of a cliffhanger). The art style was on the realistic end of the scale, and the animation was much smoother, although they did cheat with the car scenes by using computer models. It did get a just little silly in places, just taking things slightly beyond the wiggle room it had earned for itself which spoiled it a little. That said, I have high hopes for the next in the series. 8/10

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Jpn) (wiki)

If you were to only watch a single 'big robot' anime, then Evangelion is the one to go for, as it is The Daddy. Nausicaa artist Hideaki Anno has decided to 're-imagine' [resell] his 90's ground-breaking series by remaking them as three films, this being the second. It was a great shame that last year they didn't think of putting the first one on but the Leeds Anime Society has hold of the Hyde Park Picture House and it's one of the choices in the 'pick a flick' segment, so all is not lost.

Evangelion is the story of the EVA units; huge robots the size of skyscrapers built to serve an urgent need; earth is under repeated attack by 'angels', beings of unknown origin that attempt to destroy life on earth with disturbingly calm looks on their faces. The situation has matured to the point of cities being designed for the ever present threat of being levelled by a huge fight; whole swathes of tower blocks can retreat into the earth and infrastructure exists to make emergency evacuations at a moments notice on confirmation of a new angel being spotted. Even worldwide treaties were signed to limit the number of EVA units to have in operation at any time.

As tends to be the case with series like this, the units are manned by children barely into their teens, whose quick reactions and supple brains are most suited to the immersion technology to meld man with machine. The films concentrate on Shinji, a shy but talented pilot of the experimental EVA 01 unit, and son of the director of Nerv, the organisation tasked with repairing and deploying them in combat. Joining Shinji are Asuka, a foreign student with fiery red hair and an obnoxious personality, and Rei, a mysterious and quiet girl piloting the prototype EVA 00 unit, mysteriously hand-picked by the Nerv director for inclusion in the project.

Evangelion is particularly good at not 'just' being a big robots anime; much of the episodes and scenes detail their unnatural lives as they try to live as normal outside the stresses of war and conflict, particularly Shinji's all but destroyed relationship with his father. Even the fights themselves don't 'feel' like typical anime, often with some backstory going on as the battles progress. 2.0 has a particularly good example of this, but I will say no more as it's the most powerful scene, and one of the most affecting I have seen in film. There are sections where I don't think I took a breath for several minutes.

In short, if you have any curiosity over anime and want to get a cross section of what the best out there is, you might well want to put the Evangelion films (of which there will eventually be four) in the big robot space. 8.5/10

Redline (Jpn) (site)

Redline is utterly relentless. Only the Japanese can manage this level of high-energy eye-hammering to such a consistent degree. Best described as a desperate, chaotic and destructive imagining of F-Zero on the big screen with a bit of romance thrown in, Redline has a very distinctive art style, similar to American comic books, again reminiscent of the artwork of the F-Zero characters from the later games in the series. It's about all-out racing in a distant future, where the earth is dry of resources and inhabited planets have long since made contact. Though skycars are the norm, some 'fools' still race using wheeled vehicles.

JP and Sonahime are racers in the Yellow Line cup, trying to qualify for the all-out Redline race later on. While Sonahime makes the cut, JP's rigged car explodes and crashes, and it's only due to others dropping out that he just qualifies for the big race. Someone decided that it should take place in 'Roboworld' - a group of planets ruled by a stuck up set of metal gits who don't like the idea of thousands of cameras poking around their planets, possibly taking pictures of military secrets and the like. When trying to stop the race doesn't help, they launch an all out attack as it happens, which seeing as the contestants can use whatever weapons they choose, makes an already insane situation that bit madder.

I haven't seen something so utterly unrelenting on screen before. You can barely tell what is going on sometimes, only that a lot of metal is getting dented and some people are going to hurt in the morning. It's absolutely mad, but also fresh and inventive, with distinctive visuals and a lot of action. You might get a headache watching it though. 8/10

Another festival gone already, and that's it for another year. Thanks for reading my reviews and I hope my tired brain made sense as I emptied it onto the page. The next fest will be Bradford in February, with maybe a couple at the trusty Hyde Park Picture House. Lets see if I can get some time free for it.

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 17

The Secret of Kells (Fra/Bel/Irl) (site/wiki)

A charming animation from a relatively unknown studio, Kells has been doing the festival circuit for a year, managing to stay out of my grasp until now. In fact, you can already get it on DVD. Its' seductively colourful stylised artwork and interpretations of Irish myths and legends got me interested and I was thankful I had one final festival in which to catch it.

Young Brendan is the nephew of Abbot Cellach, the ruler of the circular city of Kells, his pointy tower rising at its centre, the only viewpoint that can see over the wall that is being constructed, at the obsessive command of Cellach, to keep the citizens safe. News comes in from all around of Vikings, who attack each city they find and burn it to the ground. So much has Cellach worried about this threat that he has forbidden anyone to leave the safety of the city walls.

One day Brother Aiden, a scribe from the far away city of Iona arrives and uses the sanctuary of the city to tell of the 'Book of Iona', a book with power and beauty, written by a man whose words blind any sinner who will read them. In an incomplete state, Aiden asks Brendan to gather berries to make ink, in the woods beyond the walls. It is there he meets with the mysterious wolf-girl Aisling, who helps Brendan see past his uncle's unwavering opinions.

Kells is full of beauty and mystery; drawing on both traditional Abrahamic and Celtic religious storytelling, it feels like the latest chapter of an often repeated and revised religious text. For 90% of it's length, I was enthralled in a beautiful story told with child-like and distinctive visuals. I was thoroughly enjoying it all when.. the credits rolled. At the point where I would have expected another 20 minutes or so of wrapping up the story, it just ended leaving me hanging. It was if they had run out of money and just wrapped things up super quick, which disappointed me somewhat after enjoying it so much until that point. But I should note that this does not invalidate the beauty and enjoyment experienced for the hour or so before. 7.5/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 16

Russian Lessons (Rus/Geo) (site)

Husband and wife documentary team Andrei Nekrasov and Olga Konskaya, both Russian, decided to make a film exploring the recent escalations between uneasy neighbours Russia and Georgia, and the real goings on not reported - or blatantly misrepresented - by the Russian state media on the 2008 war between them. Splitting up and approaching Georgia from the north and south, they meet in the disputed country of Ossetia, with both their findings differing greatly from what the masses, both in Russia and beyond have been fed.

What was particularly disconcerting was the media coverage that was provided overseas by foreign news - including our highly respected BBC - which appeared to swallow the Russian line without questioning. A particular segment of the film showed Russian newsreel footage against the original source material, showing that more often than not, reports vilifying the Georgian attacks on disputed places like Tskhinvali, were unconnected with the footage actually screened. Scorched bodies and pock-marked buildings were often Georgian, Abkhazian, Tskhinvalian, but not Russian, as had been reported. It was this alleged, massive blatant propaganda that further stirred the Russian people up against the Georgians, to validate their need for counter-invasion, the intention being to punish Georgia for it's arrogance and bring it back under Russian control.

There are many, many images and personal testimonies in this film that are deeply disturbing, but need to be shared. Andrei and his late wife Olga put themselves in considerable danger to extract and collate this information and have created a powerful and comprehensive alternative voice. It should be viewed by as many people as possible, as it is a powerful signal that we have not left behind in our history barbarism of the scale attributed to the Nazis. 8.5/10

Face The Wall (Ger) (site)

In the years leading up to the final act of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, an estimated 72,000 people from East Germany were detained under the most appalling treatment by the Stasi of the former GDR. This film takes 5 volunteers who attempted to defect across the border; Catharina who chose to follow her fleeing boyfriend, Lothar, a farmer who had his land taken away, Andreas, whose ideas were stifled as a young child at school, Mario, a gay man who had contact with his West German friends taken away, and Anne, a teacher at a state school who was required to scrutinize and report any sign of western influence in the children she taught.

Swapping between them, director Stefan Weinert sits patiently as they talk about their pre-detainment lives, the constant surveillance they received every time they left their home, and their capture and imprisonment, often without reason or warning. The middle segment of the film, where each talk about their experience while imprisoned is pretty horrifying. Treated worse than animals, they are tortured both physically and psychologically. Hung upside down with electrical wire, given cells with violent criminals. Sleep deprivation, isolation, and mind games, such as repeated questioning of the smallest details of their lives, or a bunch of interrogators screaming at them in their cells. Sometimes they would be convinced over a period of weeks that their friends and families were turning against them, that their memories were false, or that they put loved ones in danger as a result of their transgressions. Anything to completely annihilate any feeling that they had power over their own minds. Unsurprisingly, many cracked under the pressure and confessed to whatever they were charged.

Several times in the film, the volunteers were taken back to their places of detainment or their old homes, which intensified the memories, and the recollections for the camera. Even when in the relative comfort of their own homes, the distant look in their eyes tells you there are a lot of memories being dredged up, maybe never shared with anyone over the 20 years between.

Though I had become weary from the overwhelming imagery of Russian Lessons, Face the Wall was powerful enough to easily hold my attention some more, this time with only my imagination, rather than pictures, to realise the enormity of the suffering. 8/10

High on Hope (UK) (site)

A low budget and suitably rough and ready documentary (updated from the Director's 2003 film) about the rise of the impromptu Blackburn warehouse parties, at the beginning of the Acid House era that started in the late 80's. Starting small, these grew in size to be thousands of people strong, and consequently moved from small rented rooms in pubs, to abandoned warehouses. For 18 months these parties sprang up in the face of unemployment and misery in the north of England, the huddled masses looking for alternatives to the bouncer-infested, black-tie-no-jeans nightclubs that had become the stifle of creativity and expression they had always been against.

To the delight of the slightly inebriated sell-out audience, the film took them on a nostalgic trip back 20 years, showing how the parties would be announced at the last minute by an individual who could provide a venue, whilst others brought the sound equipment. No dress code, no problem. Fleets of cars would clog up the roads en masse to the party, and the race was on to get everyone in before the police arrived to put an end to it. Cue flaky, grainy footage taken within of the throng moving as one to the insanely cranked up bass. At a time where the future was seen as hopeless, these primal, tribal gatherings satisfied an indescribable need.

Told in the style you might imagine by a group of thirtysomethings looking fondly back on their anarchic youth, High on Hope was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be, having been a delicate and sheltered soul who felt intimidated at the anarchy of it all at the time it was all kicking off. It was funny, and positive, and made me reassess the opinions I formed while looking at the unfavourable news reports from the time. 8/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 15

Kosmos (Tur/Bul) (imdb)

Deep in the winter wilderness of a remote corner of Turkey, a man, perhaps deliriously happy, or maybe hysterically upset, tramps and stumbles noisily through the deep snow. Finding himself in a remote village, he stops for a while at the riverside, only to see the body of a child floating by, followed at the other side of the river by a frantic mother. He drags the lifeless object from the current and holds him so tight, arms and legs are flung in all directions. Miraculously, to the mothers' great relief, the boy stands alive, but the man is exhausted and sobbing in the snow.

Earning respect and hospitality from Yahya, the father of the boy, and hypnotising the local cafe crowd with his strange, prophetic talking, the man finds offers of both work and accommodation, but he is only passively interested. Walking through the village with childlike wonder, proclaiming love in it's simplest sense for the women he meets, and trying to help those he comes across in need. As the bombs and gunfire of civil war thunders continuously overhead, the man becomes the great hope of the poor and needy, and the target of suspicion for those looking to capture whoever it is who has started stealing from the local shops at the same time he arrived. The cold, derelict village full of old buildings and dying citizens both reject him and look to him for salvation. But the man cares not for these things, his forlorn and weathered face only lighting up when he finds a kindred spirit in Yahya's daughter, a girl who seems to see the world as he does, and fly on the wind.

Kosmos has me divided. To it's credit, the religious allegories are a mysterious and seductive form of storytelling, and the whole story as a clever circularity to it that you will not see until the end; the man himself is a strange enigma, unpredictable like a feral animal, and forever reacting abnormally to the situations that come his way. Once the film was over I found myself reviewing the film more positively than during it's 2 hour length.

Unfortunately, the film's ability to make me put on rose tinted glasses the moment the credits roll, wasn't quite enough to get over just how bloody annoying the man was, or how random things were inserted into the film and then were casually dropped, as if they were no longer needed because some mystery message were being transmitted on a frequency that only you couldn't hear. Kosmos is a deeply flawed, but beautiful work with flashes of brilliance and frustration in equal measure. I wanted to enjoy it so much more. 5.5/10

All That I Love (Pol) (site)

Janek and Kazek are brothers in ATIL, a punk band singing anarchic songs as they practice in an abandoned caravan. They are still at school, and they're close to graduation. It's the early 80's in an unstable East Germany. Martial law has been instigated, and their father is a soldier in the Communist party. It's fair to say there's a little bit of tension in the air.

We centre in on the life of Janek in particular. Though a nutter on stage, he's still a shy boy when it comes to the ladies, and consequently Besia, who has taken a shine to him, has to do all the work to get him to make a move. Besia is the daughter of a prominent member of the Solidarity movement, a growing civil unrest that is attempting to subvert the government. Understandably, father is less than happy for her to go around with the son of a commie. When Besia's father is taken as a political prisoner by the communists, she finds herself unable to reconcile her relationship and withdraws, not wanting further contact. Janek faces a time in his life where a number of tough and uncertain decisions have to be made, just as the world changes and crumbles around him.

Though the themes in the film have plenty of potential for conflict, much of it is unrealised, most of the enjoyment coming from the brief periods of joy or victory that the band has against their increasingly restrictive oppressors, some of which are less obvious than others. Ultimately, ATIL relies completely on the smaller concerns within a larger problem, and thus failed to completely hold my attention. 7/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 14

I Am Not Your Friend/I Will Not Be Your Friend (Hun) (imdb)

Director György Pálfi is notorious for his 2006 film Taxidermia; a bold and grotesque yet somehow endearing film that caused people to sit up (and throw up) in their seats when it was shown. I had some queasy turns when I saw it in 2007 at Cambridge but despite its' disturbing imagery, it was clear that Pálfi could cause some serious film-based ripples.

So it was with some priority that I ensured I would see his latest effort, split into two parts. There is literally no plot, or more accurately, at the point the cameras begin to run there isn't. The actors are given no cues, only to decide for themselves their acting names, what sort of person they are, and improvise the film in front of the cameras. Relative unknowns in the film industry (they may even be people plucked off the street) are used to give it that extra bit of 'making it up as they go along' spontaneity.

But first, we are shown a short film (I Will Not Be Your Friend), which is little more than the quiet scenes from Etre Et Avoir, where small children argue, chatter and generally work out their pecking orders and groups of friends, at an age where they are not aware of the recording power of cameras. I think it's aim was to provide a comparison between the way children interact without direction in front of the camera, compared to the adults.

The main film was the main experiment. Several actors and actresses appear, and try to get a narrative going with each other, but I'm afraid the result fell flat on its arse. The structureless dialogue was broken and unordered, people talked over others, sentences stumbled, and what looked like several plot lines started up with great enthusiasm just to fizzle out, never to return later. It would have helped if the participants were a little better prepared for the experiment; too many times in the film, one of the characters in the conversation would ask a question (e.g. 'what are you doing here?') and after a pause, the other would attempt to look serious and respond with a filler ('you tell me!') while their mind tried to think of something worthwhile to say, that golden moment where the actors go in sync and smoothly ad-lib to the output of the other never comes, which is a shame because it could have been beautiful.

If the actors found themselves dumbfounded for what to do once or twice, it would have probably helped the film get some cute charm, but when it happens dozens of times it gets annoying, and I found myself scrutinizing the dialogue for fillers rather than enjoying what was being made. The only noticeable structure to the film are the several periods where characters sing along to a tune on the radio; a regular occurrence meant I assume to give the feeling of structure where there was none.

This could have been a far better film, if only Pálfi hadn't insisted on a complete lack of structure. The only reason I have rated it as highly as I have is because it was a worthwhile experiment to see if this sort of thing could work. We now know that it can't. 4/10

The Robber (Aus/Ger) (site)

Missed several times at other festivals, I wanted to catch this one while I could. Johann, a running fanatic and serial bank robber has just been released from six years in prison, during which time he has done little more than run around the prison yard. Without any outwardly apparent reason, he ignores the advice of his parole officer and immediately nicks a car and robs a bank, depositing the car far away and running back to his halfway house bedsit. He happily leads a double life, becoming a minor celebrity as the guy who left the professionals behind at the Vienna marathon.

A chance meeting with his trusting old flame Erika, who offers to house him until he gets a place of his own does not diminish his irrational and unquenchable desire for more and more loot, and after several high-profile armed robberies, Erika finds his stash of banknotes and has a very difficult decision to make.

The most frustrating thing about the film is it's refusal to even break the surface and explore the psychology behind Johanns' baffling desire to keep going out and putting both himself and others at risk; his desire to amass money that he doesn't seem bothered about spending seems to be more like a challenge to himself in the vein of the gruelling amount of exercise he does. But I suppose the real-life story behind the film is an enigma anyway, given the events that run their course. Overall, it was an enjoyable and increasingly tense exploration into the mind of someone with a compulsive disorder. 7.5/10

Zonad (Irl) (site)

Zonaaaad. Zoooooooooonaaaaaaaaaaaad. Zonad.

Waking up in a drunken haze covered in half-eaten snacks on a living room floor, with a prim and proper family standing over him, Francis knows he is in trouble, but the few brain cells that haven't been destroyed by the previous nights' binge are working overtime, and tell him to get up and proclaim himself to be an alien from another planet.

He is dressed in a shiny red leather suit and wearing a plastic helmet. He says his name is Zonad. The family believe him.

In fact, 'Zonad' is Frank, an alcoholic who has escaped with colleague Liam during a fancy dress party at the local rehab clinic. Losing the gorilla-suited Liam somewhere along the way, he's landed on his feet; the family feed him, he gets the bed of the youngest kid to kip in, and he becomes a source of intrigue and excitement for Jenny, the barely legal teen daughter whose intended boyfriend Guy, a strange American soul living in an empty mansion with his butler, just doesn't seem like he wants a piece.

With all the free booze and food placed on Zonad by the trusting and simple villagers of Ballymoran, he isn't going anywhere, until Liam turns up and likes the look of the attention his ex-friend is getting, spawning Zonad's arch-nemesis, Bonad who proceeds to oust him of all the luxuries he was just beginning to take for granted.

Zonad is anarchicly funny, full of ridiculous characters based on fictional ideal-home people from the 1950's transported without touching a piece of technology to the present day and stuck in a backwater village. Only the immensely corruptible Sgt. Maloney shows signs of evil, happily beating and tying people up, and weeing on them, but only if the right person asked. The characters are deliberately overplayed parodies, and the film doesn't take itself too seriously, eschewing ethical messages often found in superhero films in favour of slapstick and swearing. A good laugh on a low budget. 8/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 13

Article 12 (UK/Arg) (site)

The title refers to the article in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, stating that 'No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy..'. This film underlines the importance of this fundamental right by examining the meaning of privacy, security and surveillance, what it means to an individual, a society, and what happens when it is eroded or taken away.

Surveillance takes many forms, from nosy neighbours, to tracking your kids' mobile phones, to loyalty card shopping, internet service providers storing surfing data, and CCTV which aside from allegedly keeping the peace, can be used to record registration plates (and therefore where you went today), face recognition, and even trials where people are trained to watch individuals to work out what they are about to do just by analysing their expressions and body language. This film spends a lot of time enumerating the number of ways that our privacy is being eroded, and the list is quite disturbing. Such erosion is often justified by the old 'why complain if you have nothing to hide' argument, one which is roundly stamped on repeatedly by the film. Everyone has something to hide. It's not a bomb, it's a person's private life, something that everybody has a right to have.

Comprehensively, but stodgily, this documentary takes interviews from various thinkers and doers in the area; security experts, lawyers, political activists and 9/11 survivors all give their opinions, leaving the viewer quite dizzied about how far we have let our rights be taken away. Those who suppose the extra intrusion in our lives should consider the effects already starting to permeate in; your facebook comments, and thus your non-employment life, could decide whether or not you get that next job you really needed. Trending software can make an educated guess at your sexuality or religion from what food you buy, which might be useful to right-wing governments the next time they want to go all Nazi on us. Surveillance has gone one before, but never with the level of intrusive technology available these days, and so it is down to a film such as this to inform us.

The message that rang truest for me was about our PM, who in the aftermath of the 2005 bus bombings, said that the government's number one priority is keeping the country safe. No, the number one priority for any government is to keep the country free. Freedom means that you are not completely safe from the spectre of a terrorist attack, but that is part of what freedom is about; we shouldn't be nannied and kept frightened and our rights taken away, because that was the aim of the terror in the first place. 8/10

After the film, there was a talk with the audience, the director, and several of the films' talking heads, about the subjects raised, which unfortunately I had to miss, but it looked very interesting. It should be available as a transcript on their site shortly.

The Invisible Eye
(Arg/Fra/Spn) (site)

Taking place in the days before the beginning of the Argentinian uprising against the dictatorship in 1982. The strict regime of the school in which young teaching assistant Maria works has kept her as subdued as the children she teaches, who are never allowed to deviate from the norm or get even slightly out of line. The new year brings in an unruly boy, whose looks and faint signs of rebellion wake the subdued desires within her. Taking on the false badge of catching the boys smoking, Maria gets herself increasingly into situations she shouldn't, and while doing so, unwittingly attracts the attentions of the fatherly supervisor Mr Biasutto, the morally upstanding boss of the place. As the rioting begins to escalate beyond the walls outside, the increasingly inappropriate situation cannot possibly end well.

Where The Invisible Eye did well was in the depiction of a group in power, hiding their long suppressed desires behind an eggshell of moral upstanding, and how a little bit of power can cause those people to misuse their advantages over others. It also had a suitably shocking ending which although it took long enough to arrive, came quickly and unexpectedly, and held the audience's breath in its hands. It would have scored higher if it wasn't for the overuse of repeating situations that barely moved the story forward, but a solid film even so. 7/10

Bad Family (Fin) (site)

Some time ago, Mikael's wife left him for a guy in a band. A free spirit with little organisational skills, she was never a good fit to a man with strong principles and a high sense of duty to do what is right. The split also meant dealing with their two children; Dani the son stayed with Mikael, while unexpectedly, sister Tilda went away and lived with mum, who was suffering from depression.

After several years, Mikael has remarried and has a second batch of children, and Dani is now well on to manhood. When news comes of his ex dying of an overdose, Tilda finds herself homeless and without anywhere to go and is invited to stay for a while. Returning to her fathers' side, she has clearly picked up a few of her mother's habits.

During the welcome party with friends, Mikael hears rumour of incestuous goings on between the newly reunited and hormonal pair, and further fleeting glances in window reflections seem to confirm it, although what actually happened is much more innocent, Mikael has got/ it into his head, and gnaws away at his mind. His actions become increasingly irrational (not helped by the conflicting opinions over what his friends suggest he should do) as he tries to maintain control of a phantom situation that is getting out of hand.

Mikael is played as a man permanently on the edge of violent outburst by the streamlined Ville Virtanen, who looks liable at any moment to use his fists to get his own way. It lends the film a sense of tension and urgency, particularly when mixed with the provocative and confrontational Tilda, whose relationship to both Dani her father are always kept ambiguous and complicated. It's an unpredictable and intriguing thriller, with a few funny bits sprinkled in and a good round off for the night. 7.5/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 12

Elling (Nor) (site)

Elling was showing as part of the festival's retrospective selection, and dates from 2001. Ultra-reclusive Elling is found by the police cowering in a cupboard, completely helpless as a child after his overprotective mother dies. While in a care home, he finds himself sharing a room with Kjell, a clumsy oaf who shares Elling's fear of the outside world, but otherwise is his exact opposite. Brash and unwashed, his over-active but underfed libido causing him to have ladies on the brain 24 hours a day, impulsive Kjell somehow bonds with the hesitant and morally upstanding Elling and the two become close like squabbling brothers.

Their little world shatters when they are ejected from the seclusion of the care home and given a flat in Oslo to live in as a halfway house, on their way back to normal life. Along with the deal strides the confident Frank, a social worker with little patience, there to encourage them to get out an interact with the world; if they don't, they will lose their flat and will be out on their ear. They don't even know how to answer a telephone.

I apologise to the Norwegians for the quality of this American trailer.

Elling was Oscar nominated in 2002 and it's easy to see why. It's a fantastic and gentle little film with plenty of memorable scenes and lots of laughs; it's very funny indeed, the sex-mad Kjell bringing a lot of the jokes as Elling's foil, and the balance between funny and poignant as they become more outgoing in their own ways and thus begin to lose their close bond, is pitched just right. Well worth seeing. 8.5/10

The Art of Negative Thinking (Nor) (wiki)

What might best be described as a well-organised descent into chaos, The Art of Negative Thinking takes the fragile stability of a 'positivity group', four timid souls each trying to heal themselves after some personal tragedy, and applies a badly aimed hammer in the form of Geirr at it. Miserable, angry and with a jet black sense of humour, Geirr spends his time purposelessly wheeling himself about his house, some unknown accident leaving him wheelchair bound. Driven to the edge, his despairing wife Ingvild has taken the bold step of inviting the small group to their house for introductions, something that Tori, the organiser of the group approaches with her usual confidence, even in the face of Geirr's flat out refusal to cooperate. After all, she is an expert.

It doesn't take long for Geirr's poisonously negative attitude to infect the fragile shell that Tori has spent many long months trying to build around her subjects, but as the walls begin to break down, it is clear that the group members have their own problems and frustrations that are not being addressed by Tori's highly-rated techniques.

Although Elling pipped it for sheer enjoyment, this could have been a highlight if it had been shown on a different day. The deliciously decadent idea of sending a fragile group of souls into the quagmire that they have just managed to struggle out of, betting against the odds that they will somehow come out okay at the other side is a very guilty pleasure, with each laugh from the increasingly chaotic situation coming on the back of a feeling that you really shouldn't be laughing. But to label it as straight comedy is wrong, as the relationships in the group develop and broaden, and there is a genuine heart to the film in the quieter bits. Even though they are heading over the cliff on a wave of funny, we care enough for them to not go over the edge. 8/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 11

The Woman who Dreamt of a Man (Den) ()

A sour romantic thriller from Denmark in the same vein as Anna M, a story of how obsessional desire can only destroy everything you know. Fashion photographer K dreams over and over of a man committing suicide by falling from a hotel room balcony. In the waking world she finds Machek, a happily married man by chance at a cafe who is the spit of the one in her dreams. Forming an immediate bond to the man and a desire to protect him, she follows and finds him responding with equal passion to her advances, the lives of both their families forgot in the throes of passion.

But the situation cannot last, and Machek begins to step back from the edge, with only K's overpowering desire keeping him close. Both sides risk losing everything for their passions, and K appears to be losing her mind.

This is a good movie to introduce to your average cinema goer, to show them that just because it's not made in the US doesn't make it inaccessible. Most of the film is in English with only the occasional burst of subtitles, and from the look of the friend I took with me who doesn't go for this sort of thing, he really enjoyed it (although that might have been to do with the large amounts of casual nudity). 8/10

Erratum (Pol) (review)

Long since leaving behind his parents, home and friends in Szczecin for a new life elsewhere, Michal is asked by his boss to return there to pick up a new car. On the start of his drive back however, he knocks down an old man who wanders drunkenly into the road. Initially fleeing the scene, he returns to face justice, and is fortunate to spend a quiet conversation in police custody with a wise old officer who understands the situation; the old man was drunk and Michal was driving correctly. Enough to cause the end credits to roll in many films, this was not the end of the story but the beginning. Whilst waiting for the hastily contacted mechanic to get the parts to repair the damage to the car so the boss won't find out, Michal's conscience kicks in and with time on his hands tries and find the friends and relatives of the old man, who died without anyone seeming to know who he was. As he learns more, the life of his own father, who he has not talked to at all since leaving, begins to sound very similar leading to a few small attempts at reconciliation.

A very quiet and unassuming feel-good film, Erratum warms the cockles with its gently progressing storyline and the messages of maintaining, or at least re-establishing contact with loved ones before it's too late. 8/10

Animal Kingdom (Australia) (site)

There are several films in the 'innocent kid getting mixed up with the gangster part of the family' group films, and this one fits nicely into that pigeon hole. Already in a ropey family unit, teenager Josh comes home to find his mother dead from a heroin overdose, and goes to stay with his aunt, who happens to live with an extended family of rough and unpleasant gang members headed up by Uncle Andrew, known in the streets as The Pope, They're the source of much of the crime in the area and to complicate things, the Australian police force is about to lose by legislation, its tough and controversial armed squads, and so they are determined to make the most of it in their remaining weeks.

Josh, not the brightest of buttons, spends a lot of the movie navel-gazing and looking a bit gormless, and invites his unknowing girlfriend into the evening drink, drugs and TV get togethers, something she drinks up with pleasure, unaware of who it is she is dealing with. When the police make an unprovoked killing of one of the members, they respond in kind, and things begin to escalate. Josh's semi-liveable existence and that of his girl is put into serious danger. Does he trust his family to see things through or go to the police, headed by a moustached Guy Pearce, to give him protection against any vengeful kin, or maybe the lawyers in the middle can give the remaining members a deserved spell in the cells.

It's better than Edinburgh's A Spanking in Paradise, but not quite on the level of The Misfortunates from last year. Animal Kingdom is light on humour but plenty of thrills and danger. 7.5/10

R U There? (Ned) (site)

One of an emerging batch of films that bring to the big screen the on-line multiplayer world. Jitze is a computer games wizard, taking the crown in massive on-line tournaments, but he is frustrated and tired with his obsession, and takes a holiday away from everything to the far east. Conspicuously out of place and not speaking the language, he searches for some relief from his RSI-induced arm ache, he meets with the intriguing Minmin, who shows him life away from the guns and ammo of a thousand first person shooters, and a more calm and sedate existence both in the real world, and through Second Life.

The film uses footage from the game as a gateway to the feelings they project onto their avatars, with Minmin far more affectionate in the on-line world than she does outside. An entertaining variant on the clueless tourist abroad stories, R U There shows a both critical and sympathetic sides to the mass adoption of video games, but its story about the regaining of a persons human side never quite realises it's potential. 7/10

Never Let Me Go
(UK/US) (wiki/site)

Based closely on the book of the same name by Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also gave us the excellent Remains of the Day, and by the director of One Hour Photo, that managed somehow to make Robin Williams into a decent actor again, this film is a sort of sci-fi film with no sci-fi elements. Based in an alternate 1970's - 1990's middle England, where medical science took a leap forward into cloning for the creation of donor organs, the donors themselves 'modelled on' (i.e. were clones of) other people, and are seen as subhuman creatures.

The Halesham boarding school churns out many such clones every year, and the film follows three of them, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, from their early years at the school to their graduation and eventually when they reach the required age, their passage into the status of donors. Rumours fly around that those who fall in love may be granted some deferment so they may live a few years longer together, and Kathy and Ruth both see Tommy with some affection; the more confident Ruth taking her place in front of Kathy, who was beginning to form strong bonds with him.

There is a sense of helplessness and dread almost from the first scene, the audience first made aware of a general sense of the transitive lives of the children, which is grimly fleshed out as the film goes on. Your heart cries out at the screen for them to rebel or run away, but their resignation to their fate seems to be too strong. It's a really moving film, and one for times when you want to have a good cry, but it sometimes the sheer weight of sorrow for the damned characters gets a little overpowering. Still however a very beautiful and haunting film. 8/10

Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 10

Today was a big day for films.

Invention for Destruction (Cze) (wiki)

An ambitious classic adventure from the 1950's, inspired by the works of Jules Verne, and cited as the inspiration for several directors who have come and gone since. Its early steampunk machines and gentleman villains, grand locations and the age of exploration have clear descendants in the works of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hayao Miyazaki (Laputa has clear parallels, especially the fantastical flying machines).

Professor Roch and his dashing young assistant Simon Hart are kidnapped by scurvy pirates and taken to the ship of Count Artigas, the equivalent of Capt. Nemo. Hidden from prying eyes, Artigas has made the most advanced submarine of the age, filled with the latest instruments and able to ram ships so they can plunder any cargo. While Roch naively revels in the brand new laboratory he is given to perform experiments in, Hart is banished to a run down shack and not allowed to contact the professor, which Artigas hopes can develop technology to bring the world to it's knees.

For a film made in 1958, it's special effects are superb, the visuals being a mix of stop-motion photography and live action, often overlaid with a watermark to give the impression that everything is drawn and lifted out of the pages of one of Jules Vernes' novels. It's also genuinely funny in places, and not down to cheesy effects either. If you are interested in the origins of the great works of fiction today, this film is a good start in tracing the lineage. 7.5/10

Best of British UK Short Film Competition

Fu(nd) This - A meta-film, a short film about getting short films made. A young and cocky producer pitches his script in front of two budgeting suits, while sharing his inner thoughts about their attitudes to what is and isn't allowed in something they put their name to. Sex, religion, politics, and the censorship thereof are all covered in a sneering style by a director obviously weary of the process himself. 7.5/10

Bodies - The itchiness of the ambiguity in a relationship are accurately conveyed in the musings of a girl, happy but insecure about her relationship. She stumbles and trips over the words to say, breaks up the sentences with a million conflicting opinions in her mind, telling us just how confused in her own mind she is. 7/10

Tad's Nest - An animation using sand on paper to create a fluid motion, where a young girl and boy, playing on the shore find a nymph in a tree. It wasn't clear what was going on, but it looked pretty. 6/10

The Birdman of Tamworth - A short documentary about Leon, a young soldier who was killed in Iraq shortly after arriving, whose short life was recounted by his mother who begins the film in full control of her emotions, but quickly breaks down. The scenes at the National Memorial Arboretum in are the most powerful. 7.5/10

Exhale - Shortly after being diagnosed HIV positive, Joel spends a night at friend Chris's house, but Joel is reluctant to tell anyone about it, his head understandably pretty screwed up. While Chris is out, the temptation of a bottle of Baileys becomes too much. 7/10

Inept - Joe's wretched life is described by the narrator as if reading a book, the depressing words coming to life on the screen as they are being read out. Drugs, sleep and dealers are all he sees from his bed, a life completely set to waste. 7/10

The Moonbird - Using haunting music and eerie glowy pencil drawings in the style of a child, the Moonbird is a realisation of a young girls' nightmare as she is transported to a creepy wood where crows dig up skeletons and witches want to capture her for her tears. Only the Moonbird can rescue her once she is caught. 7/10

Release the Flying Monkeys - Two girls from Albania who have clearly had too much Jesus Juice head to inner city London where they self-righteously claim to be able to rid people of demonic posession and get ready for Jesus' imminent return. They're clearly bonkers, almost as much as Aziz, who asks them to remove the curse from her tortoise. It was unclear which bits were plainly acted and which were the genuine beliefs of some people. 7/10

40 Years - As a child, David killed his friend by accident. 40 years later and his life plagued with problems (not least, just killing his wife), he sets out to try to banish the ghosts in his mind. 7/10

Conversation Piece - A BBC short film with John Henshaw and Celia Imrie, simply an argument over a broken vase between a long-married couple, but to the sounds of a Louis Armstrong-style jazz record, their voices replaced by instruments. It was good, but by the end the joke had worn thin, 7.5/10

Yorkshire Short Film Competition

15 Letters - A stop motion animation to accompany a music video of the same name, a man haunts the life of the woman who married him and then sent him to his grave. 7.5/10

Lets Launch Leonard - Two forceably geeky teens band together with one aim - to be the first amateur astronauts in space. Their spaceship is a rusty van with some tape on it, they're waiting for the money to make the wings. 8/10

Mr Bradley Mr Martin Hear us Through the Hole in Thin Air - A very odd and surreal journey using fragments of speeches by William S. Burroughs, set to the strange experiments taking place in a 1950's laboratory, interspersed with old photographs. It's all deeply odd and doesn't really make any sense unless you are familiar with the subtleties of the Burroughs' cut-up poems (which I wasn't). 5/10

Outside - In a future run by computers, most people have decided to join the 'Inside', a giant virtual online community, but a few have not. One woman leaves the inside and tries to adjust to life outside in the desolate, empty earth, but finds temptation in strange squares of material which seem to be connected to the hive somehow. A slightly dull film made a bit better by its use of old real-life tower blocks and beaches to simulate the desolate environment we will be living in. 5/10

Scent - John, a pensioner has lost his wife, who died presumably in the night. He can't bear to let her go. When we join him, the house has begun to smell, but trapped by his love and fear of being alone, he bathes and sleeps with her as normal. A truly upsetting but powerful work. 8.5/10

The Astronomers Sun - Showing again (I saw it at the animation shorts), a beautiful old fashioned stop-motion animation about a man trying to follow in the footsteps of his astronomer father who disappeared when he was young. It deservedly got the Yorkshire Short Film award. 8.5/10

The Good North from Jonathan Entwistle on Vimeo.

The Good North - An uncomfortable film about the relationship between a right-wing skinhead father and his son and daughter, the former failing to follow his passion for football rioting, and the latter carrying on with an Asian boy. 7.5/10

Like Joe, Loathe Joe - Joe is a teen with some inner problems, but he's trying to make the best of it by losing himself in the football team at school, but when a friend's dad starts seeing his mother, anger threatens to send him over the edge. 7/10

Uncle David - A mini documentary about a pensioner doing litter picks around the streets and parks of Devonshire that warms you up on a cold night. David became sick of the litter around the area, and asserts an interesting fact, that the more litter there is in a place, the more people will litter it. Handling mouthy teens and used condoms without being phased, with only a litter picker and a bouncy dog for company, he's pretty much cleaned up his town. An affectionate look at one man's standing up to fight the apathy. 8.5/10

Aint Got No Sole - A short music video about a man trapped in a circus as the ringmaster. It was quite nice, but over before you knew it and didn't really do anything. 6/10

Sweet Little Lies (Jpn) (site)

Ruriko and Satoshi are in a comfortable but loveless marriage in their small flat in the Tokyo suburbs. Ruriko tends the house and creates stuffed dolls for sale and exhibition, while Satoshi has an unforgiving office job. When he returns home, Satoshi acts like a child, leaving his wife to pick his dropped clothes and shoes up, and make his tea, which he eats alone in a locked room playing video games all day. Though Ruriko puts a brave face on it to both her husband and her friends, it is clear that she is not content. She illustrates with the custom in Japan to have red and white roses in the gardens of happy couples; red for passion, white for truth. Those with passion and truth will be happy.

Both partners appear to get their wish as they find themselves the attention of others, even though they initially resist, both become involved in affairs while openly telling the other everything except for the kissy kissy parts. Satoshi has his passion slowly ignited from diminutive Miura, while Ruriko finds truth in the confessions of love thrown at her by Tomiko. However, the fleeting nature of these relations cause the couple to re-evaluate just who they really love.

It's a film that will appeal to those who have had relationship problems, felt the love and excitement in the relationship get forgotten and sidelined in favour of the mundane aspects of a busy life, and offers hope that, with a change in perspective, what is important will bring them back together. 8/10

The Beluga Whale at the a Tokyo aquarium steals the show at the end.

The American (US) (site)

George Clooney directs and plays dashing agent Jack, who appears to have rubbed the Swedes up the wrong way, and now they want to kill him. Shooting both the agents sent after him and the girl he was just getting friendly with (a cold-hearted insurance policy to make sure no witnesses) he rings his boss to take some time off in Rome, to which his manager repeats the mantra 'don't make any friends'.

Trying to stay away from people for his own good, he attracts the attention of a very perceptive priest who puts his life at risk by asking too many questions, and falls in love with prostitute Clara, a definite no-no in the hitman's book of rules. During all this the boss has tasked him with putting together a modified rifle for a beautiful and mysterious woman who wants a very specific weapon to do her job. As Jack gets more involved with Clara, he puts himself at risk of becoming a target for both the vengeful Swedes, and his boss who doesn't accept resignation letters.

Though Clooney does use some artistic license to turn the original book into a show of his manly physique and what a cool expression he has when he has a gun in his hand, he also delivers a very good performance as a ruthless killer trying to get some peace. The American is well scripted and takes place in the beautiful countrysides and towns of Sweden and Rome. It's a high-quality assassin thriller and well recommended. 8/10